Remember to File a Refund Suit under the Shorter SOL when Congress Lets You Sue after Paying Only 15%

We welcome frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about the time frame for filing a refund suit with respect to a divisible, assessable penalty. Here, the taxpayer’s attorney seems to have relied on the general rule allowing a taxpayer to bring a refund suit within two years after payment. Unfortunately for the taxpayer, that rules does not apply in this context. Keith

In a recent unpublished opinion of the Ninth Circuit in Taylor v. United States, an individual who was assessed multiple section 6694 return preparer penalties tried to take advantage of the statutory rule allowing him to bring a refund suit by paying only 15% of each penalty. However, it appears that he did not pay close attention to the provision of section 6694(c)(2) that requires an expedited suit for refund in that event. He brought a district court refund suit on February 25, 2016, a year and three months after he made the 15% payments and filed a refund claim. That suit would have been timely had the 2-year period after formal notification of claim disallowance applied under section 6532(a). But, section 6532(a) does not apply to such a 15% payment suit, and he missed the shorter statute of limitations applicable to a suit where 15% is paid. As a result, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court for the Eastern District of Washington’s dismissal of his refund suit for lack of jurisdiction as untimely. It seems to me that he can now pay the remaining 85% and file a new refund claim and sue concerning the 85%. But, I doubt that he can ever get back the 15% paid because the IRS disallowed that claim on January 29, 2016, so it is now more than 2 years since the claim for the 15% was disallowed. Any new suit for the 15% or the 85% would, I think, have to be brought under the section 6532(a) filing deadline after full payment.

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In Flora v. Unites States, 362 U.S. 145 (1960), the Supreme Court held that a suit for refund under 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1) involving an income tax deficiency could only be brought if the taxpayer first paid 100% of the deficiency. Treating full payment as a jurisdictional prerequisite, said the Court, was not clearly required by the words of the statute or its 1921 legislative history. However, subsequent developments – including the 1924 creation of the Board of Tax Appeals to allow prepayment review of deficiencies – influenced the Supreme Court’s thinking.

It was not clear after Flora whether that full payment requirement would apply to assessable penalties, such as the section 6672 responsible person penalty, since there was no possibility of Tax Court prepayment review of the few assessable penalties then in existence. However, a footnote in Flora indicated that, in the case of divisible taxes, payment of one of one divisible portion would be enough jurisdictionally to found a refund suit. Relying on that footnote in Flora, less than three months after Flora, in Steele v. United States, 280 F.2d 89 (8th Cir. 1960), the Eighth Circuit held that the full payment rule of Flora applied to the divisible penalties under section 6672 such that suit was jurisdictionally proper if the taxpayer had fully paid only one penalty for one employee for each quarter involved in the suit.

Section 6672(c)(1) currently provides that if a taxpayer, within 30 days of notice and demand, makes such a divisible payment, files a refund claim, and puts up a bond for the rest of the assessment, then the IRS is barred from collecting by levy or bringing a suit for payment of the balance assessed so long as a taxpayer’s refund suit under (c)(2) is pending. (The IRS may, however, counterclaim for the balance in the suit brought under (c)(2).) Under (c)(2), a taxpayer who has done what is required under (c)(1) may bring a refund suit, but only within an abbreviated period – i.e., up to 30 days after the refund claim is denied.

There are a few other assessable penalties that have special jurisdictional payment and filing features similar to that of section 6672(c). Those penalties are under section 6694 (return preparer penalty), 6700 (penalty for promoting abusive tax shelters), and 6701 (penalty for aiding and abetting understatements of tax). The assessable section 6702 frivolous submission penalty once had similar features for a part-payment refund suit, but those were removed. In each of the three cases, section 6694(c)(1) or 6703(c)(1) (applicable to the section 6700 and 6701 penalties) provides that paying 15% and filing a refund claim within 30 days of notice and demand can be enough to bar the IRS from collecting by levy or bringing a suit for payment of the balance assessed so long as a refund suit under (c)(2) is pending. (Note the lack of a bond requirement for the balance, unlike under section 6672(c).) Under (c)(2), a litigant who has done what is required under (c)(1) may bring a refund suit, but only within an abbreviated period that is potentially shorter than the period for section 6672 penalties – i.e., under sections 6694(c)(2) and 6703(c)(2), within the earlier of (1) 30 days after the refund claim is denied or (2) six months and 30 days after the refund claim is filed. Note that the six months and 30 day alternative period is a much more limited period than the indefinite period to bring suit in section 6532(a) in the absence of a claim disallowance.

I speculate that what happened in the Taylor case is that, since he was familiar with the rule of section 6532(a) that effectively allows an indefinite period to bring suit in the absence of a notification of claim disallowance, he did not realize that, under section 6694(c)(2), he could not wait beyond six months and 30 days to bring suit after he filed his refund claim – even though his claim had not yet been disallowed. My speculation is because he actually did bring suit within 30 days after the claim was disallowed. But, that was too late. And nothing in either the district court or appellate court opinion gives a reason for his late filing that might suggest an equitable reason for late filing.

So, what did Taylor argue to get out of the box he put himself into?

First, in his district court written response to the DOJ’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction he argued that the filing deadline in section 6694(c)(2) is not jurisdictional, but is simply a statute of limitations that does not go to the power of the court. I am not sure why he made this argument, since he did not show facts for equitable tolling of a nonjurisdictional statute of limitations. Even if the filing deadline is not jurisdictional, it is still a mandatory claims processing rule with which he did not comply. He argued that (c)(2) is not jurisdictional, but only “sets limits on the time frame in which the IRS is prohibited from pursuing collection action of the penalties at issue.” The Ninth Circuit disagreed.

Here is the full text of section 6694(c)(1) and (2):

(c)  Extension of period of collection where preparer pays 15 percent of penalty.

(1) In general. If, within 30 days after the day on which notice and demand of any penalty under subsection (a) or (b) is made against any person who is a tax return preparer, such person pays an amount which is not less than 15 percent of the amount of such penalty and files a claim for refund of the amount so paid, no levy or proceeding in court for the collection of the remainder of such penalty shall be made, begun, or prosecuted until the final resolution of a proceeding begun as provided in paragraph (2). Notwithstanding the provisions of section 7421(a), the beginning of such proceeding or levy during the time such prohibition is in force may be enjoined by a proceeding in the proper court. Nothing in this paragraph shall be construed to prohibit any counterclaim for the remainder of such penalty in a proceeding begun as provided in paragraph (2).

(2)  Preparer must bring suit in district court to determine his liability for penalty. If, within 30 days after the day on which his claim for refund of any partial payment of any penalty under subsection (a) or (b) is denied (or, if earlier, within 30 days after the expiration of 6 months after the day on which he filed the claim for refund), the tax return preparer fails to begin a proceeding in the appropriate United States district court for the determination of his liability for such penalty, paragraph (1) shall cease to apply with respect to such penalty, effective on the day following the close of the applicable 30-day period referred to in this paragraph.

Apparently, the question whether the filing deadline under section 6694(c)(2) is jurisdictional has not been previously addressed in the Ninth Circuit. However, the Ninth Circuit in Taylor noted the virtually verbatim similarity of the language of section 6694(c) and that of section 6703(c). In Thomas v. United States, 755 F.2d 728 (9th Cir. 1985), the Ninth Circuit had held that the 30-day deadline in section 6703(c)(1) after a notice and demand to pay the 15% is a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit in a case involving a section 6702 penalty that was at the time (but is no longer) subject to section 6703(c). In Korobkin v. United States, 988 F.2d 975 (9th Cir. 1993), the Ninth Circuit had held that the six months plus 30-day deadline in section 6703(c)(2) to file suit is a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit involving a section 6700 penalty. Taylor followed these cases by analogy in holding that compliance with the filing deadline under section 6694(c)(2) is jurisdictional. So, the district court properly dismissed this untimely suit for lack of jurisdiction.

The second thing Taylor argued was that instead of having paid 15% of each penalty (as he originally directed the IRS to apply the payments) he should be deemed to have paid 100% of 15% of the penalties, so the district court had jurisdiction under section 1346(a)(1), and suit was timely under section 6532(a) with respect to the penalties that he had fully paid. This was an interesting argument, but it was first raised at oral argument on the DOJ’s motion to dismiss before the district court. The district court held that this argument was raised too late to be considered. The Ninth Circuit agreed that this argument was not timely raised.

Observations

Les and I recently blogged on Larson v. United States, 888 F.3d 578 (2d Cir. 2018), here and here. Larson involved a section 6707 penalty for failing to file a form with the IRS providing information concerning listed transactions as to which the rules of section 6703(c) do not apply. In Larson, the Second Circuit held that Flora requires full payment of such an assessable penalty as a jurisdictional prerequisite of a refund suit, even though there is no alternative Tax Court prepayment contest permitted for such penalty. Part of why Larson ruled the way it did was because the Second Circuit there noted that Congress, in sections 6694(c) and 6703(c), had created 15% exceptions to the full payment rule of Flora, but had not done so for other assessable penalties. Taylor also holds the 15% payment requirement to be jurisdictional, citing Flora.

The Ninth Circuit in Taylor failed to acknowledge that its ruling that the filing deadline in section 6703(c)(2) is jurisdictional is in conflict with that of at least one other Circuit court: In Dalton v. United States, 800 F.2d 1316 (4th Cir. 1986), the Fourth Circuit had held that the 30-day-after-claim-disallowance deadline in section 6703(c)(2) to file suit is a not a jurisdictional requirement of a refund suit involving a section 6702 penalty. Indeed, in Dalton, the court equitably tolled the filing deadline (tolling only being possible if the filing deadline is not jurisdictional). Taylor’s attorney cited Dalton in his opening Ninth Circuit brief.

I have repeatedly noted in PT that, under recent Supreme Court case law since Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443 (2004), filing deadlines are no longer considered jurisdictional, unless Congress has made a rare “clear statement” in the statute that it wants what is usually a nonjurisdictional claim processing rule (a filing deadline) to be treated as jurisdictional. Of course, the Circuit court opinions in Thomas, Korobkin, and Dalton were decided before Kontrick and its progeny, so do not analyze section 6703(c) under the proper current case law. I am disappointed, however, that the Ninth Circuit in Taylor (here in 2018) did not think to reconsider its holdings in Thomas and Korobkin in light of the more recent Supreme Court authority. Appellate judges know that authority quite well and should employ it, even where (as in Taylor’s case) both parties failed to cite it in their briefs. See Volpicelli v. United States, 777 F.3d 1042 (9th Cir. 2015) (not merely relying on prior precedent, but analyzing the wrongful levy suit filing deadline at section 6532(c) under recent Supreme Court case law and holding the deadline not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling).

As PT readers know, Keith and I have recently argued (with little success so far) that Tax Court filing deadlines for stand-alone innocent spouse actions (at section 6015(e)(1)(A)) and Collection Due Process actions (at section 6330(d)(1)) should no longer be considered jurisdictional under recent Supreme Court case law. We have lost those cases mostly because those provisions use the words “the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction” in the same sentences that provide the filing deadlines. It appears that one could make a stronger case that the filing deadlines in sections 6694(c)(2) and 6703(c)(2) are not jurisdictional: First, the sentences in those provisions do not contain the word “jurisdiction”. Indeed, they do not speak at all to the district court’s jurisdiction or powers. Taylor is right that these provisions really only give deadlines to file and “set[] limits on the time frame in which the IRS is prohibited from pursuing collection action of the penalties.” That does not comport with the Supreme Court’s current view that “Congress must do something special, beyond setting an exception-free deadline, to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional . . . .” United States v. Wong, 135 S. Ct. 1625, 1632 (2015). Second, the Supreme Court “has often explained that Congress’s separation of a filing deadline from a jurisdictional grant indicates that the time bar is not jurisdictional.” Id. at 1633 (citations omitted). Here, the real jurisdictional basis for a 15% payment refund suit is still located at 28 U.S.C. § 1346(a)(1), far away from these Internal Revenue Code sections. So, I respectfully disagree with the Ninth Circuit’s holding in Taylor that these filing deadlines are jurisdictional. [Sigh]

Does the Mailbox Rule Survive a 2011 Reg. Under Section 7502?

We welcome back frequest guest blogger Carl Smith who discusses important forthcoming arguments regarding the mailbox rule.  This seemingly simple procedural provision gives rise to its fair share of litigation because it can make or break a case.  The cases that Carl flags are worth watching for those in need of the mailbox rule to preserve the timeliness of a submission.  Keith

 Before section 7502 was added to the Internal Revenue Code in 1954, courts determined the timeliness of various filings required under the Internal Revenue Code under a common law mailbox rule under which, if there was credible extrinsic evidence of timely mailing via the U.S. mails, then a document was presumed to have been delivered (despite denials of receipt), and if the mailing was made before the filing date, the mailing effected a timely filing. Of course, the use of certified or registered mail was excellent proof of timely mailing under the mailbox rule, but testimony about timely use of regular mail could be believed by the court, as well.

Over the years, some Circuits have faced the issue of whether the enactment of the statutory timely-mailing-is-timely-filing provision of section 7502 preempted or supplemented the mailbox rule. Compare Anderson v. United States, 966 F.2d 487 (9thCir. 1992)(mailbox rule still valid); Estate of Wood v. Commissioner, 909 F.2d 1155 (8th Cir. 1990)(same); withMiller v. United States, 784 F.2d 728 (6th Cir. 1986)(mailbox rule preempted by section 7502); Deutsch v. Commissioner, 599 F.2d 44 (2d Cir. 1979)(same). See alsoSorrentino v. Internal Revenue Service, 383 F.3d 1187 (10th Cir. 2004)(carving out a middle position).

In 2011, a Treasury Regulation under section 7502 was amended to specifically provide, in effect, that the common law mailbox rule no longer operated under the Code.  Since then, a few district courts have faced the question of the validity of this regulation.  Two courts have held the regulation valid under the deference rules of Chevron, U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Res. Def. Council, Inc., 467 U.S. 837 (1984).  McBrady v. United States, 167 F. Supp. 3d 1012, 1017 (D. Minn. 2016);Jacob v. United States, No. 15-10895, 2016 WL 6441280 at *2 (E.D. Mich. Nov. 1, 2016).  Another district court, in an unpublished opinion in a tax refund suit, followed Andersonand applied the mailbox rule, without discussing the regulation.  Baldwin v. United States, No. 2:15-CV-06004 (C.D. Cal. 2016).

While no court of appeal has yet ruled on the validity of the regulation, on August 31, 2018, the Ninth Circuit will hear oral argument both on the government’s appeal of Baldwinand the taxpayers’ allegedly late appeal from an unrelated Tax Court Collection Due Process (CDP) case.  Both cases squarely present the issue of whether the Ninth Circuit should hold that its Andersonopinion has been superseded by a Treasury regulation abolishing the mailbox rule – a regulation that must be considered valid under Chevrondeference.

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Baldwin

Baldwin is a tax refund suit.  There, the taxpayers reported a loss on their 2007 income tax return, filed on or before the extended due date of October 15, 2008.  They wished to file an amended return for 2005, carrying back the 2007 loss to generate a refund in 2005.  Under section 6511(d), this had to be done by filing the amended return within three years of the due date of the return generating the loss – i.e., by October 15, 2011.  The taxpayers, while living in Connecticut, had properly filed their original 2005 return with the Andover Service Center, but by 2011, original returns of Connecticut residents needed to be filed at the Kansas City Service Center.  In 2011,Reg. § 301.6402-2(a)(2)provided that “a claim for credit or refund must be filed with the service center serving the internal revenue district in which the tax was paid.” That would be Andover.  But, instructions to the 2010 Form 1040X (the one used by the taxpayers) told Connecticut taxpayers to file those forms with Kansas City, where original Forms 1040 for 2010 were now being filed.  (In 2015, the regulation was amended to provide that amended returns should be filed where the forms direct, not where the tax was paid.)

The taxpayers introduced testimony by one of their employees that the employee mailed the 2005 amended return by regular mail on June 21, 2011 from a Hartford Post Office to the Andover Service Center.  But, the IRS claimed it never received the Form 1040X prior to October 15, 2011, and that the filing was in the wrong Service Center.

The district court credited the testimony of mailing, citing the Anderson Ninth Circuit opinion that allowed for the common law mailbox rule to apply.  The Baldwincourt’s opinion does not mention the August 23, 2011 amendment to the regulation under section 7502 (quoted below) that purports to preempt use of the mailbox rule.  The court went on to find that, given the conflict between the regulation under section 6402 and the form instructions, a taxpayer was then “simply required . . . [to] mail his amended return in such a way that it would, as a matter of course, be delivered to the proper service center to handle the claim within the statutory period.”  Finding that this was done here, the court held the refund claim timely filed.  The Court also observed:  “The fact that the IRS routinely forwards incorrectly addressed refund claims as a matter of course also suggests that the IRS does not consider an address problem to be fatal to a refund claim.”

Then, the Baldwin court, over the government’s objections, found that a net operating loss had been incurred in 2007 and could be carried back to 2005, resulting in a refund due the taxpayers of $167,663.  To add insult to injury, the court also held that the government’s litigating position in the case, after a certain point, was not substantially justified, so the court imposed litigation costs payable to the taxpayers under section 7430 of $25,515.

The government appealed, arguing not only that there was no valid net operating loss in 2007 to be carried back (and so the litigation costs, as well, should not have been imposed), but that the district court lacked jurisdiction because the refund claim was not filed within the time set forth in section 6511(d).

Waltner

The Waltners are a couple who have been to the Tax Court may times, and even have been sanctioned under section 6673for making frivolous arguments (even their attorney has sometimes been sanctioned thereunder).  Their Tax Court case at Docket No. 8726-11L involved an appeal by them of multiple CDP notices of determination involving multiple years of income tax and frivolous return penalties under section 6702.  In an unpublished orderon April 21, 2015, Judge Foley granted the IRS’ motion for summary judgment with respect to some of the notices of determination, but not as to all notices.  The parties later reached a settlement on the other notices, which was embodied in a stipulated decision entered by the court on January 21, 2016.  Under section 7483, this started a 90-day window in which the Waltners had to file any notice of appeal.

An August 9, 2016 unpublished order of then-Chief Judge Marvel describes what happened next:

On August 4, 2016, petitioners electronically filed a Statement Letter to the Clerk of the U.S. Tax Court (With Ex.).  Among other things, in that Statement petitioners assert that: (1) on April 15, 2016, petitioners sent by regular U.S. mail to the Tax Court a notice of appeal in this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit; and (2) that notice of appeal (a) either may have been lost by the U.S. Postal Service, or (b) may have been lost after delivery to the Tax Court.  Attached to the Declaration of Sarah V. Waltner as Exhibit A, is a copy of Petitioners’ Notice of Appeal to the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Because this case is closed, petitioners’ Statement Letter to the Clerk of the U.S. Tax Court (With Ex.) may not be filed.

On August 15, 2016, the Waltners then admittedly filed a proper notice of appeal with the Tax Court.   But, the Ninth Circuit questioned whether the appeal was timely and sought briefing on this issue.  The DOJ argued that the appellate court lacked jurisdiction because the notice of appeal was untimely.

DOJ Argument

 Here are the links to the Baldwin Ninth Circuit appellant’s brief, appellees’ brief, and the reply brief.  Also, here are the links to the Waltner Ninth Circuit appellants’ brief, appellee’s brief, and the reply brief in the Ninth Circuit.  Although the two cases are not consolidated with each other, they have been scheduled to be argued one after the other before the Ninth Circuit in Pasadena on August 31, 2018.  And the DOJ briefs are clearly coordinated in their argument.

The DOJ arguments are predicated on the Treasury’s section 7502 regulation, Chevron, and Nat’l Cable & Telecomms. Ass’n v. Brand X Internet Servs., 545 U.S. 967 (2005).

As amended by 76 Fed. Reg. 52561-01 (Aug. 23, 2011), Reg. § 301.7502-1(e)(2)(i)provides, in relevant part:

Other than direct proof of actual delivery, proof of proper use of registered or certified mail, and proof of proper use of a duly designated [private delivery service] . . . are the exclusive means to establish prima facie evidence of delivery of a document to the agency, officer, or office with which the document is required to be filed.  No other evidence of a postmark or of mailing will be prima facie evidence of delivery or raise a presumption that the document was delivered.

The DOJ argues that section 7502, when enacted (and still today) is ambiguous as to whether it preempts the common law mailbox rule.  The DOJ contends that there is thus a gap to fill, which, under Chevron, can be filled by a reasonable regulation. The Circuit split over whether the mailbox rule has been preempted is evidence of two reasonable interpretations of section 7502.  The regulation is valid because it chooses one of those two reasonable interpretations.

In Brand X, the Supreme Court held that Chevron deference must even apply to a regulation that takes a position that has been rejected by a court, so long as the court opinion did not state that it found the statute unambiguous.  If the statute was unambiguous, then there can be no gap under ChevronStep One to fill.  PT readers may remember the extensive discussion of Brand X in the section 6501(e) Treasury Regulation case of United States v. Home Concrete & Supply, LLC, 566 U.S. 478 (2012).

The DOJ argues that Anderson did not describe its interpretation of section 7502 to still allow the mailbox rule as one required by an unambiguous statute.  Accordingly, under Brand X, the 2011 amendment to the section 7502 regulation is entitled to Chevron deference, in spite of Anderson.

We’ll see in Baldwin and Waltner if the government can effectively overrule Anderson by its regulation.

Observations

I will not needlessly extend this post by explaining my beef with the DOJ’s other arguments that compliance with the filing deadlines for refund claims under section 6511 and for notices of appeal under section 7483 are “jurisdictional” conditions of the courts.  I don’t think that either deadline is jurisdictional under current Supreme Court case law that makes filing deadlines now only rarely jurisdictional.  And, sadly, none of the taxpayers in these two cases made an argument that the filing deadlines are not jurisdictional – probably because it makes no difference in the outcome of their cases whether the filing deadlines are jurisdictional or not.  The taxpayers are not arguing for equitable tolling, just the mailbox rule (which is not an equitable doctrine that would be precluded by a jurisdictional deadline).  I only regret that I did not learn of either of these two cases earlier, when I could have filed amicus briefs raising the issue of whether the two filings deadlines are really jurisdictional.  At least the courts, then, might have noted that it is a debatable question whether these two filing deadlines are jurisdictional.

Supreme Court Holds that SEC ALJs are “Officers” Who Need Constitutional Appointment

Frequent guest blogger Carlton Smith brings us an important development in Appointments Clause litigation that could have implications for employees of the IRS Office of Appeals. Christine

In Lucia v. Securities and Exchange Commission (June 21, 2018), in a 6-3 ruling, the Supreme Court held that Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are “Officers of the United States” under the Constitution’s Appointments Clause (Art. II, Sec. 2, cl. 2), so need to be properly appointed by the SEC, not merely hired by SEC staff. In an opinion authored by Justice Kagan that was joined by all five Conservative Justices on the Court, the Court said that its holding was simply one required as a result of the holding in Freytag v. Commissioner, 561 U.S. 868 (1991), that Tax Court Special Trial Judges (STJs) are constitutional officers who need to be appointed pursuant to the Appointments Clause.

Since September 2015, I have been doing posts on the litigation leading up to the Lucia ruling (in chronological order, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). In those posts, I have pointed out that the litigation leading to Lucia might have a significant impact on the ALJs that the Treasury uses to conduct Circular 230 violation hearings. Although I am not sure, I suspect that only Treasury staff, and not the Secretary of the Treasury (or any other Secretary) has hired those ALJs and that none has been appointed. I also noted that a ruling holding that SEC ALJs need to be appointed may cause the revisiting of the Tax Court’s holding in Tucker v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 114 (2010), affd. on different reasoning, 676 F.3d 1129 (D.C. Cir. 2012), that Appeals Settlement Officers and their Team Managers conducting Collection Due Process (CDP) hearings need not be appointed.

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In Freytag, the Court held that STJs are “Officers of the United States” who need to be appointed and that the Tax Court Chief Judge was one of “the Courts of Law” to which Congress could delegate this power, since the STJs were “inferior Officers” under the Clause. In making its ruling in Freytag, the Court noted numerous powers of STJs that were similar to those of district court judges (who everyone conceded were officers under the Clause).

However, the Court created confusion in Freytag by also noting that Tax Court judges could enter final decisions in certain Tax Court cases, without review by a regular Tax Court judge. See section 7443A(c). This led to a split by lower courts as to whether SEC ALJs had to be appointed, since the SEC ALJs lacked power to make final decisions. An SEC ALJ’s ruling becomes final only if the SEC declines to hear an appeal from the ruling. In the Lucia case, the D.C. Circuit had followed its ruling in Landry v. FDIC, 204 F.3d 1125 (D.C. Cir. 2000), concluding that Freytag held that STJs needed to be appointed only because they entered final decisions in some cases. In Lucia, the Supreme Court (in footnote 4) called the finality mention in Freytag an “alternative holding”, with the primary holding being that STJs needed to be appointed based on their other powers. The Lucia footnote states that Freytag’s “primary analysis explicitly rejects JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR’s theory that final decision making authority is a sine qua non of officer status.” Thus, the Lucia Court rejected Landry’s interpretation of Freytag.

This point is important, since in its opinion in Tucker, the Tax Court held that Appeals Settlement Officers and their Team Managers conducting CDP hearings need not be appointed because they do not (in the Tax Court’s view) have the power to enter final decisions, as required by Landry’s interpretation of the holding of Freytag. The D.C. Circuit in Tucker, however, disagreed with the Tax Court and stated that the IRS personnel had effective final ruling authority in CDP. Instead, the D.C. Circuit in Tucker held that the Appeals personnel need not be appointed because the collection matters they ruled on were not important enough to need a constitutional officer and the tax liability determinations that they made were so restricted by Counsel’s supervisory authority that little discretion was exercised by Appeals personnel in CDP.

In Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1 (1976) (per curiam) (involving the Federal Election Commission), the Supreme Court had held that an “Officer” under the Appointments Clause is one who exercises “significant authority” on behalf of the United States. The Lucia Court acknowledged that the “significant authority” standard provides little concrete guidance for how to decide other cases, and the Court did not want to provide more general guidance in Lucia as to what “significant authority” encompassed.

Instead, the Court in Lucia held that the SEC ALJs were so like Tax Court STJs that the holding of Freytag inevitably extended to make SEC ALJs Officers under the Clause. The Court in Lucia noted four powers of the SEC ALJs that were similar to those of Tax Court STJs: (1) taking testimony, (2) conducting trials, (3) ruling on the admissibility of evidence, and (4) having the power to enforce compliance with discovery orders. The Court held that these four powers alone were enough to make the ALJs constitutional officers, without deciding whether each of those four powers was necessary to a determination of officer status. The Court acknowledged that there were some differences between the two types of adjudicators (e.g., the STJs can enforce their discovery orders by contempt, whereas the ALJs can enforce those orders only by lesser means – such as barring the person from the hearing), but did not find these differences of constitutional significance.

This led to the question of remedy: The SEC has since appointed the various ALJs (including the one who decided Lucia’s case) and has purported to ratify all prior rulings entered by ALJs before they were appointed. But, the Court held that a person who brings a successful Appointments Clause challenge is entitled to a remedy, which, it in the past, the Court had held was a trial before an appointed officer. The Lucia Court wanted to make the remedy here one that encourages the brining of successful Appointments Clause challenges. Accordingly, the Court expanded on its prior case law and ordered a new hearing by either a now-appointed ALJ or the SEC itself, but not by the ALJ who originally decided Lucia’s case. The Court thought that the ALJ who decided Lucia’s case, whose underlying rulings had never yet been even criticized in a judicial opinion, would be too likely to simply reissue his opinion unchanged.

Justices Thomas and Gorsuch had joined the majority opinion, but Justice Thomas wrote a concurrence, joined in by Justice Gorsuch, in which he rejected Buckley’s significant authority test. He would have a less restrictive test: Anyone who held a continuing position in the government should be an officer, since that would have been the understanding of the drafters of the Constitution in 1787 as to what they meant by “Officer”.

Justice Breyer wrote a partially dissenting opinion in which he refused to decide the constitutional Appointment Clause issue. He thought that the language of the Administrative Procedure Act that authorized the SEC to appoint ALJs was simply enough to decide the case and that the SEC had not complied with its statutory mandate to appoint, rather than have the staff hire, the ALJs. Justice Breyer felt he could not decide the Appointments Clause issue without also deciding whether, in the event appointment was required, there would be another constitutional issue created concerning the limited for cause removal powers of those ALJs that the SEC possessed. The SG, when he changed the government’s Lucia position to argue that the SEC ALJs need to be appointed, had asked the Court to also decide whether a removal power issue was created if the ALJs needed appointment. The Court explicitly declined to write on removal power issues that might have been created by its ruling. The Court desired that lower courts consider any removal power issue before the Supreme Court is asked to consider it.

It is not clear to me that the Appointments Clause powers need to mesh constitutionally with removal power issues. However, in Kuretski v. Commissioner, 755 F.3d 529 (D.C. Cir. 2014), as counsel for the taxpayers, I had argued that another holding of Freytag – that the Tax Court exercised a portion of the Judicial Power of the United States – means that a for cause removal power applicable to regular Tax Court judges at section 7443(f) violates the separation of powers doctrine and so should be eliminated. There is clearly a reason for harmonizing the appointment and removal power questions, but it is not a foregone conclusion that anyone who exercises a portion of the Judicial Power of the United States, and so who needs to be appointed, cannot be removed by the President under a for cause removal power.

Justice Breyer also disagreed with the majority’s holding that the remedy should be a rehearing by an appointed ALJ or the SEC, but not by the ALJ who ruled after the original hearing. He thought that the remedy chosen by the Court was excessive. A rehearing before any appointed officer, he thought, would be enough of a remedy.

Justice Sotomayor wrote a dissent in which she was joined by Justice Ginsburg. Those two Justices also joined that part of Justice Breyer’s dissent that descried the remedy as excessive. But, Justice Sotomayor, in her dissent, also argued that the ability to render a final decision was a sine qua non of constitutional officer status under her reading of Freytag (which matched that of the D.C. Circuit both in Landry and Lucia). She wrote:

In Freytag, the Court suggested that the Tax Court’s special trial judges (STJs) acted as constitutional officers even in cases where they could not enter final, binding decisions. In such cases, the Court noted, the STJs pre­sided over adversarial proceedings in which they exercised “significant discretion” with respect to “important func­tion,” such as ruling on the admissibility of evidence and hearing and examining witnesses. 501 U. S., at 881–882. That part of the opinion, however, was unnecessary to the result. The Court went on to conclude that even if the STJs’ duties in such cases were “not as significant as [the Court] found them to be,” its conclusion “would be un­changed.” Id., at 882. The Court noted that STJs could enter final decisions in certain types of cases, and that the Government had conceded that the STJs acted as officers with respect to those proceedings. Ibid. Because STJs could not be “officers for purposes of some of their duties . . . , but mere employees with respect to other[s],the Court held they were officers in all respects. Ibid. Freytag is, therefore, consistent with a rule that a prerequisite to officer status is the authority, in at least some instances, to issue final decisions that bind the Government or third parties.

As noted above, though, the Lucia majority rejected this interpretation of Freytag.

As to the direct impact of Lucia on pending Tax Court cases, in my last post on Lucia on January 19, 2018, I noted that Florida attorney Joe DiRuzzo is again raising the Tucker issue (i.e., whether CDP Appeals personnel need to be appointed) in multiple Tax Court cases that would be appealable to other Circuits. Rulings on this issue have in essence been postponed (though not officially) pending the ruling of the Supreme Court in Lucia. Those rulings are now ready for the Tax Court to make.

I don’t know if there are any Circular 230 adjudications going on, so I can’t tell whether or how the Lucia opinion will affect current Circular 230 matters. I am not sure that future Circular 230 sanctions litigants will want to raise issues concerning the ALJs and Appointments Clause. And, of course, it is too soon for the Treasury to have decided whether to change its procedures and appoint its ALJs.

Fourth Circuit Joins Second and Third in Holding Innocent Spouse Suit Filing Deadline Jurisdictional

We welcome frequent guest blogger Carl Smith back to the blog. Today he writes about our most recent loss in our effort to knock down jurisdictional walls in situations where taxpayers have a strong equitable reason for missing a court deadline. Keith

In a case litigated by the Harvard Federal Tax Clinic, the Fourth Circuit in Nauflett v. Commissioner, affirmed, in a published opinion, two unpublished orders of the Tax Court (found here and here) holding that the 90-day period in section 6015(e) in which to file a Tax Court innocent spouse petition is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. The Fourth Circuit thus joins the two other Circuits to have addressed these questions – in other cases litigated by the clinic – Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301 (3d Cir. 2017) (on which we blogged here) and Matuszak v. Commissioner, 862 F.3d 192 (2d Cir. 2017) (on which we blogged here).

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In all three cases, the IRS misled a pro se taxpayer into filing a late Tax Court petition.

The Nauflett opinion basically just follows what was said by those prior Circuits, finding in the words of the statute a clear statement that excepts this filing deadline from the current Supreme Court general rule that filing deadlines are no longer jurisdictional. Section 6015(e) provides that an “individual may petition the Tax Court (and the Tax Court shall have jurisdiction) to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section if the petition is filed” within 90 days of the issuance of a notice of determination (or after the taxpayer’s request for relief hasn’t been ruled on for 6 months). The Fourth Circuit noted the word “jurisdiction” in the sentence creating the filing deadline and felt that the word “if” in the sentence conditioned the Tax Court’s jurisdiction on timely filing. The court did not think the fact that the word “jurisdiction” was in a parenthetical mattered, and it did not credit (or even discuss) the taxpayer’s argument that the word “jurisdiction” was arguably addressed only to the words immediately following the parenthetical (“to determine the appropriate relief available to the individual under this section”), which made the sentence ambiguous – i.e., not “clear”, as required for a Supreme Court exception to apply. As we have noted previously, jurisdictional filing deadlines can never be subject to equitable tolling or estoppel.

Observations

All three opinions omit discussion the clinic’s assertion that Congress, in drafting section 6015(e) in 1998, would likely have been shocked to hear that its language precluded equitable tolling, since section 6015 was an equitable provision enacted as section 3201 of the IRS Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998 and was explicitly paired with section 3202, which amended section 6511 to add subsection (h), providing for equitable tolling of the tax refund claim filing deadline in cases of financial disability. The latter provision was to overrule United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997), which held that the refund claim filing deadline could not be equitably tolled. Section 6015(e) was drafted in 1998 with none of the features that led the Brockamp court to reject judicial equitable tolling of the refund claim filing period.

I hope this third loss on the section 6015(e) issue can at least be of use in lobbying Congress for Nina Olson’s proposed legislative fix to make the filing deadlines for all tax suits not jurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling. For her proposal, see the link in our blog here.

Keith and I have no further cases to litigate on this section 6015(e) filing deadline. We cry “uncle” on section 6015(e)’s filing deadline.

However, only as amici, we are still litigating the jurisdictional nature of several other judicial tax filing deadlines:

  1. Section 6213(a) (the Tax Court deficiency suit filing deadline, in the Ninth Circuit related cases of Organic Cannabis Foundation v. Commissioner, Docket No. 17-72874, and Northern California Small Business Assistants v. Commissioner, Docket No. 17-72877 – both reviewing unpublished orders of the Tax Court dismissing allegedly-late petitions for lack of jurisdiction);
  2. Section 6532(a) (the district court refund suit filing deadline, in the Second Circuit case of Pfizer Inc. v. United States, Docket No. 17-2307 – reviewing unpublished orders of the district court for the Southern District of New York that dismissed an allegedly-late complaint for lack of jurisdiction); and
  3. Section 7623(b)(4) (the Tax Court whistleblower award deadline in the D.C. Circuit case of Myers v. Commissioner, Docket No. 18-1003 – reviewing the ruling in Myers v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 20 (June 5, 2017), dismissing a late petition for lack of jurisdiction (on which we blogged here).

All of those cases present statutes that are easier for us to win under than section 6015(e) (the hardest). We are expecting a ruling in Pfizer any moment, since it was argued on February 13. But, it is possible in each of these cases that the court will affirm or reverse on some other ground, so that the jurisdictional issue is not reached.

Finally, I wish to thank Harvard Law student Allison Bray for her excellent oral argument in the Nauflett case. Nauflett’s was the third court of appeals oral argument done by a Harvard Law student in the last 14 months. Hear Allison’s oral argument here. Prior to Allison, two other tax clinic students argued similar cases.  Hear Amy Feinberg’s oral argument to the 4th Circuit regarding jurisdiction in the CDP context here. Hear Jeff Zink’s argument to the 2nd Circuit in Matuszak regarding section 6015 jurisdiction here.

Eleventh Circuit Says Untimely-Made CDP Arguments “May Deserve Attention from the Bench and Bar”

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith. Today, Carl discusses a recent decision on appeal from dismissal by the Tax Court for untimely filing a CDP request. The taxpayer timely filed the request after receipt but not within the applicable time from mailing. The facts make for a compelling case and maybe the next person with this problem now has a basis for winning this argument. We also wish to thank Tax Notes for allowing us to link to an comments to proposed regulations referred to at the bottom of this post. Keith 

Here’s something you don’t see every day: The Eleventh Circuit faced two CDP arguments that it held were raised too late for it to consider on appeal. Yet the court was so bothered by the possible correctness of the arguments that it deliberately wrote a published opinion explaining the arguments. Here’s the penultimate paragraph of the opinion:

We do not reach the due process or legislative history arguments because Mr. Berkun did not properly raise them in the tax court. Given the lack of any substantive ruling on our part, this may seem like an opinion “about nothing.” Cf. Seinfeld: The Pitch (NBC television broadcast Sept. 16, 1992). And maybe it is. But we have chosen to publish it because the issues that Mr. Berkun attempts to raise on appeal may deserve attention from the bench and bar.

Berkun v. Commissioner, 2018 U.S. App. LEXIS 13910 (11th Cir. May 25, 2018) (slip op. at 12). This post will set out the arguments to publicize them – in hopes that practitioners and Tax Court judges dealing with pro se petitioners will consider raising the arguments timely in future Tax Court cases. For the Tax Court to accept one of the arguments, though, it will have to overrule one of its prior T.C. opinions.

In a nutshell, the first argument is that when the IRS puts a person in prison for tax fraud, Due Process requires that any notice of intention to levy (NOIL), if mailed, be mailed to him or her in prison and not merely to the residential address shown on the most recent tax return (where the IRS knows he or she is not currently living).

The second argument is one that has come up a number of times. In the innocent spouse case of Mannella v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 196, 200 (2009), rev’d and remanded on other issue, 631 F.3d 115 (3d Cir. 2011), the Tax Court wrote:

If the [NOIL] is properly sent to the taxpayer’s last known address or left at the taxpayer’s dwelling or usual place of business, it is sufficient to start the 30-day period within which an Appeals hearing may be requested. Sec. 301.6330-1(a)(3), A-A9, Proced. & Admin. Regs. Actual receipt of the notice of intent to levy is not required for the notice to be valid for purposes of starting the 30-day period. Id. We see no reason the notice of intent to levy, including information about her right to section 6015 relief, mailed to petitioner at her last known address but not received by her should start the 30-day period to request an Appeals hearing but not start the 2-year period to request relief under section 6015(b) or (c).

In Berkun, the second argument was that both the structure of CDP and a sentence from its legislative history (one that was not discussed in the pro se case of Mannella), indicate that, contrary to Mannella, a NOIL mailed to a last known address but not actually received by the taxpayer in the 30-day period in which to request a CDP hearing does not cut off the right of the taxpayer to later request a CDP hearing (i.e., not an equivalent hearing), and the CDP regulation cited in Mannella is either distinguishable or invalid.

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Berkun Facts

Alan Berkun had been convicted in New York of securities and tax fraud. The judge imposed restitution both to his victims and to the IRS. The IRS assessed the restitution under section 6201(a)(4). At the time of his incarceration, Berkun had been living with his girlfriend and their three mutual children in a house he owned in Florida, so he was incarcerated in Florida for a number of years.

While in jail, he wrote the IRS a letter asking that all correspondence concerning his tax issues be sent to him in jail. However, the income tax returns that he filed for the last two years prior to his release showed his address as the Florida house in which his girlfriend and children lived. He expected to move back into that house when he got out of prison, but shortly before release, his girlfriend ended the relationship and refused to let him move back in.

Shortly before Berkun’s release, a Revenue Officer (RO) was assigned to try to collect the restitution assessment. The RO learned that Berkun was in jail, but wanted to issue a NOIL. The RO decided to mail the NOIL to Berkun’s Florida house, without even copying Berkun in jail. Berkun’s girlfriend got the NOIL and threw it in the garbage, not telling Berkun about it.

A few months later, Berkun was released to live in his mother’s house. The RO visited him there and brought a copy of the NOIL, which he gave to Berkun. This was the first Berkun heard of the NOIL. Berkun promptly hired an attorney, who got a Form 12153 requesting a CDP hearing into the IRS’ possession within 30 days after the meeting. Berkun was not seeking to deny the correctness of the restitution assessment, but just to arrange for a collection alternative to immediate full payment through levy. One of the arguments that Berkun made was that his former girlfriend had converted a large amount of his property (including a valuable stamp collection) shortly after she learned of the NOIL, and he wanted the IRS to pursue her for collection of part of the liability.

Appeals held a hearing in which it did not agree to the collection alternative proposed or to pursue the former girlfriend. After the hearing, Appeals issued a decision letter, taking the position that the hearing was an equivalent hearing, not a CDP hearing, since Berkun had not filed his Form 12153 within 30 days of the mailing of the NOIL to his Florida house.

Tax Court Proceedings

Berkun’s lawyer filed a petition with the Tax Court and argued, under Craig v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 252 (2002), that the decision letter should be treated as a CDP notice of determination giving the right to Tax Court review because Berkun had timely requested a CDP hearing within 30 days of actually receiving the NOIL. Berkun’s lawyer argued that, based on prior cases involving prisoners put in jail by the IRS, the last known address for Berkun on the day that the NOIL was mailed was prison, not the Florida house; thus, the NOIL that was mailed was invalid, and the NOIL that was hand-delivered was the first valid NOIL, as to which a timely Form 12153 had been filed.

In an unpublished order, Judge Carluzzo dismissed the petition for lack of jurisdiction, holding on these facts that the NOIL was mailed to Berkun’s last known address, since it was mailed to the address shown on his most recent tax return.

Keith and I read the unpublished order and realized that Berkun had a second argument for why the Tax Court had jurisdiction that Judge Carluzzo had not discussed (naturally, since Berkun’s then-lawyer did not know about the argument). We contacted Berkun and his lawyer and made them aware of the argument. Berkun’s lawyer moved to vacate the order of dismissal, making this new argument – that, even if the NOIL was mailed to Berkun’s last known address, because he did not actually receive it during the 30-day period, he was entitled to a CDP hearing by requesting one within 30 days after actual receipt. A copy of a 51-page memorandum of law that accompanied the motion to vacate can be found here.

The memorandum was so long because it takes a lot of time to explain this argument. I will not go into the argument in great detail. Instead, the reader may read the memorandum or a more detailed summary of it in a prior post I did on it here in connection with unpublished orders in a case named Godfrey v. Commissioner, Tax Court Docket No. 21507-13L. As noted in the post, Godfrey was a case where the NOIL, although mailed to the taxpayer’s last known address, was not actually received during the 30-day period. The post noted that the same had happened in Mannella and in Roberts v. Commissioner, T.C. Summary Op. 2010-21. In each case, the Tax Court cited the CDP regulation saying that an NOIL that was mailed to the last known address was valid, even if not received. But, the court did not discuss the structure of CDP or the legislative history that suggests that the regulation is distinguishable or invalid as to cutting off the right of a taxpayer in such a case to get a CDP hearing if the taxpayer did not file a hearing request within 30 days of the NOIL’s mailing.

Just to whet the reader’s appetite, here is from the Conference Committee report, where Congress wrote:

If a return receipt [for mailing the NOIL by certified mail] is not returned, the Secretary may proceed to levy on the taxpayer’s property or rights to property 30 days after the Notice of Intent to Levy was mailed. The Secretary must provide a hearing equivalent to the pre-levy hearing if later requested by the taxpayer. However, the Secretary is not required to suspend the levy process pending the completion of a hearing that is not requested within 30 days of the mailing of the Notice. If the taxpayer did not receive the required notice and requests a hearing after collection activity has begun, then collection shall be suspended and a hearing provided to the taxpayer.

H.R. Rep. (Conf.) 105-599, 105th Cong., 2nd Sess. (1998) at 266, 1998-3 C.B. at 1020 (emphasis added).

The second and third sentences of the above-quoted language are the origin of the equivalent hearing, discussed in detail at Reg. § 301.6330-1(i). The last sentence, though, appears to be a command to hold a regular CDP hearing when a properly addressed NOIL was not received within the 30-day period. Only in a real CDP hearing must the IRS suspend collection action under section section 6330(e)(1). Thus, while it is true that an NOIL that is not received in the 30-day period is valid for some purposes (e.g., to allow the IRS to start collection), it should not be valid for purposes of cutting off a right to a CDP hearing when one is requested later, after the NOIL is actually received.

Moreover, Congress was clearly concerned that nonreceipt of important IRS notices could deprive a taxpayer of prepayment Tax Court review. For that reason, Congress explicitly provided that, in a CDP hearing, the taxpayer may raise a challenge to the underlying liability if the taxpayer did not actually receive a notice of deficiency. Section 6330(c)(2)(B). It would be inconsistent with the purposes of CDP to allow Tax Court prepayment challenges to happen when a notice of deficiency was not actually received, but not when a NOIL was not actually received.

Judge Carluzzo wanted no part of this argument, so he denied the motion to vacate in a brief paragraph in an unpublished order, as follows:

In the face of seemingly plain statutory language and even plainer regulations”, Andre v. Commissioner, 127 T.C. 68, 71 (2006), petitioner, in his motion to vacate filed May 12, 2016, challenges our order of dismissal for lack of jurisdiction, entered April 15, 2016, that is supported by that plain statutory language, even plainer regulations, and numerous opinions of this Court. In support of his motion petitioner relies upon certain legislative history that his memorandum of authorities, also filed May 12, 2016, shows to raise more questions than it answers. Otherwise if, as in this case, the notice referenced in I.R.C. §6330(a)(1) & (2) is properly mailed to the taxpayer, we are aware of no authority for petitioner’s argument that the period referenced in I.R.C. §6330(a)(3)(B) should take into account the date the notice is received by the taxpayer rather than the date the notice is mailed by the Commissioner. 

Appellate Proceedings 

On appeal to the Eleventh Circuit, Berkun retained Joe DiRuzzo, who was admitted to that Circuit and had extensive appellate experience. Joe made the decision not to argue that the NOIL was not mailed to the last known address, but Joe incorporated into his brief the argument that an NOIL that is not timely received can still give rise to a CDP hearing and a new Due Process argument.

The Due Process argument was based on non-tax case law from forfeiture cases that holds that a notice of forfeiture, to satisfy Due Process, must be sent to an incarcerated person in jail. See, e.g., Dusenbery v. United States, 534 U.S. 161, 164-69 (2002) (Due Process satisfied by mailing a notice of forfeiture to a claimant by certified mail to the prison where he was incarcerated, to the residence where the claimant’s arrest occurred, and to the home where the claimant’s mother lived); United States v. McGlory, 202 F.3d 664, 672, 674 (3d Cir. 2000); Weng v. United States, 137 F.3d 709, 714 (2d Cir. 1998). Joe argued that these Due Process cases should be extended to serving NOILs, as well.

As noted above, the Eleventh Circuit held that both the legislative history and Due Process arguments should have been raised in the Tax Court before Judge Carluzzo’s order of dismissal, and the judge was within his rights not to consider the legislative history argument in a motion for reconsideration (though, query whether the judge actually considered it and rejected it on the merits?). But, the Eleventh Circuit was obviously troubled by the possible merit of these two arguments. So, it wrote it published opinion “about nothing” to make the bench and bar aware of the arguments.

Observation

The legislative history argument is not a new one to the IRS. As noted in my prior Godfrey post, in August 2013, the IRS proposed changes to the innocent spouse regulations under section 6015. See REG-132251-11, 78 F.R. 49242-49248, 2013-37 I.R.B. 191. Among the proposed changes was one to Reg. § 1.6015-5(b)(3)(ii) to “clarify” that the 2-year period of section 6015(b) or (c) starts irrespective of an electing spouse’s actual receipt of the NOIL, if it was sent by certified or registered mail to the electing spouse’s last known address. This proposal was explicitly proposed to align the regulations to the holding in Mannella. On January 30, 2014, a number of low-income taxpayer clinicians (including Keith and I) submitted combined comments on the proposed regulations that, among other things, argued that Mannella was wrongly decided and the CDP regulation about non-receipt of NOILs was inconsistent with the legislative history. We recommended that, if an NOIL is considered a collection activity, the 2-year period start from the date of actual receipt of the NOIL. Our comments were published in Tax Notes Today, where they can be found at 2014 TNT 22-64. The proposed regulations are still outstanding, and the IRS has not responded to our comments.

 

Does the Tax Court Sometimes Have Refund Jurisdiction in CDP Cases?

Frequent contributor Carl Smith discusses a case implicating the Tax Court’s ability to determine and order the credit or refund of an overpayment in a CDP case. Les

In 2006, in a court-reviewed opinion, the Tax Court in Greene-Thapedi v. Commissioner, 126 T.C. 1 (2006), held that the Tax Court lacked jurisdiction to determine an overpayment in a Collection Due Process (“CDP”) case. Although section 6512(b) gives the Tax Court overpayment jurisdiction, the court held that section 6512(b) was limited in application to deficiency cases and interest abatement cases, where it is specifically referenced in section 6404(h)(2)(B). The Tax Court has never reexamined its Greene-Thapedi holding, and the holding was adopted only in a D.C. Circuit opinion, Willson v. Commissioner, 805 F.3d 316 (D.C. Cir. 2015), presenting a highly unusual fact pattern. A case named McLane v. Commissioner, Docket No. 20317-13L, currently pending before Judge Halpern may lead to consideration of Greene-Thapedi’s holding in the Fourth Circuit in a case with a more typical fact pattern than that presented in either Greene-Thapedi or Willson.

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The McLane case is not new to readers of PT. A March designated order in the case was discussed by Samantha Galvin in her post on April 5. But, that post did not discuss Greene-Thapedi, so I think another post expanding on McLane is called for.

In Greene-Thapdei, a taxpayer complained during a CDP hearing of alleged excess interest and late-payment penalty that she had been charged after she settled a Tax Court deficiency case.  The IRS had assessed the agreed tax, as well as interest and late-payment penalty thereon.  During the Tax Court CDP case, the balance charged was fully paid by a credit that the IRS took from a later taxable year, so the Tax Court dismissed the case as moot, concluding that it had no overpayment jurisdiction in CDP.  But, a curious footnote (19) in the majority opinion may have tried to leave open the issue of overpayment jurisdiction in cases where the taxpayer did not receive a notice of deficiency and so could challenge the underlying liability in CDP. However, the footnote is far from clear.  The footnote reads:

We do not mean to suggest that this Court is foreclosed from considering whether the taxpayer has paid more than was owed, where such a determination is necessary for a correct and complete determination of whether the proposed collection action should proceed. Conceivably, there could be a collection action review proceeding where (unlike the instant case) the proposed collection action is not moot and where pursuant to sec. 6330(c)(2)(B), the taxpayer is entitled to challenge “the existence or amount of the underlying tax liability”. In such a case, the validity of the proposed collection action might depend upon whether the taxpayer has any unpaid balance, which might implicate the question of whether the taxpayer has paid more than was owed.

Judge Halpern joined nearly every other judge in the majority opinion.  Judge Vasquez filed a dissent arguing that the Tax Court implicitly had jurisdiction to determine an overpayment in CDP.

In McLane, the IRS says it issued a notice of deficiency to McLane’s last known address, but, when he never filed a Tax Court petition, it assessed the income tax deficiency.  It later sent him a notice of intention to levy.  In the CDP case in Tax Court, the IRS conceded that he did not receive the notice of deficiency so could challenge the underlying liability.  After a trial, the IRS conceded that McLane proved not only the disputed deductions in the notice of deficiency, but also that he had more deductions than were reported on his return and so overpaid his taxes by about $2,500.  After the post-trial briefs were in (but before any opinion was issued), the parties held a conference call with Judge Halpern about what to do.  The IRS took the position that the Tax Court had no jurisdiction to find an overpayment and any claim filed today would be time barred.  After the conference call, the Judge in March issued an order asking for the parties to file memoranda addressing whether the court had overpayment jurisdiction.  The 6-page order did not mention Greene-Thapedi, but stated:

Because the question of our jurisdiction in a collection due process (CDP) case to determine and order the credit or refund of an overpayment appears to be a novel one, we will require the parties to submit supplemental briefs addressing the issue before we resolve it.

Judge Halpern doesn’t usually forget about relevant opinions, so I suspect that he may be thinking that Greene-Thapedi is distinguishable (maybe under footnote 19?).  In the order, the judge also suggested that the pro se taxpayer consult a tax clinic in the Baltimore or D.C. area before submitting his memorandum.

Although the taxpayer spoke to the tax clinic at the University of the District of Columbia, he decided not to retain that clinic and stayed pro se.

In response to the judge’s order, three memoranda were eventually filed with the Tax Court: (1) an IRS’ memorandum, (2) the taxpayer’s memorandum, and (3) an amicus memorandum that the judge allowed the UDC clinic to submit. Full disclosure: Although the amicus memorandum was written primarily by UDC law student Roxy Araghi and her clinic director, Jacqueline Lainez, since I assisted them significantly, I am also listed as of counsel on the memorandum.

Essentially, the IRS simply points to Greene-Thapedi as controlling and argues that the Tax Court lacks overpayment jurisdiction in CDP for the reasons stated by the majority in that opinion.

The IRS also cites and relies on Willson. In Willson, the IRS erroneously sent the taxpayer refund checks for two taxable years, when it should have sent only one refund check. Later realizing its mistake, the IRS assessed in the earlier year the erroneous payment amount. The taxpayer eventually realized that one of the two refunds checks was erroneous, and he voluntarily sent the IRS some money for the year for which the IRS had set up the assessment. When the IRS did not get back the rest of the assessment from the taxpayer, it issued a notice of intention to levy for the balance. During the Tax Court CDP case, the Tax Court held that assessment was not a proper way of collecting back the erroneous refund. And appropriate methods (such as a suit for erroneous refund) were now time-barred. So, the IRS abated the assessment. Then, the IRS argued that the case was moot. But, at that point, the taxpayer contended that he had overpaid his tax (the voluntary payments), and he asked the Tax Court to so hold, citing the Tax Court’s authority under section 6330(c)(2)(B) to consider challenges to the underlying liability. The Tax Court dismissed the CDP case as moot, without finding an overpayment.

The D.C. Circuit in Willson agreed with the Tax Court, but stated: “The IRS retained the $5,100 not to satisfy a tax liability but to recover an erroneous refund sent as a result of a clerical error. The debt created by such an erroneous refund is not a tax liability.” 805 F.3d at 320 (emphasis in original).

Since Willson does not involve a deficiency in tax and may not even involve underlying tax liability at all, it may not be controlling in McLane.

And, no other Court of Appeals has considered Greene-Thapedi’s Tax Court jurisdictional issue.

The McLane taxpayer and UDC amicus memoranda argue that Greene-Thapedi is distinguishable from McLane on the facts or was, simply, wrongly decided. The taxpayer’s memorandum also distinguishes Willson factually in a footnote. Both memoranda make many of the arguments that Judge Vasquez included in his dissents in Greene-Thapedi for why the Tax Court has inherent overpayment jurisdiction in a CDP case – especially one where a taxpayer is litigating a deficiency because he did not receive a notice of deficiency.

As I see it, either way Judge Halpern rules, there is a good chance that the losing party will take this issue up to the Fourth Circuit on appeal, where we might finally get a ruling on whether the Greene-Thapedi opinion is right or not after all.

 

CDP Requests Timely Filed in Wrong IRS Office – Tax Court Judges Disagree on Jurisdictional Consequences

We welcome back frequent guest blogger Carl Smith who writes about a jurisdictional issue in CDP cases that seems to have split the Tax Court and on which the IRS seeks to control jurisdiction with administrative pronouncements. Keith

A common fact pattern in Tax Court orders dealing with an IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction is a taxpayer whose Collection Due Process (CDP) hearing request arrives in the wrong IRS office within the 30-day period, and then that wrong IRS office forwards the request to the right IRS office, where it arrives after the 30-day period has expired. In such cases, the IRS treats the request as untimely, provides an equivalent hearing, and issues a decision letter thereafter. When a taxpayer petitions the Tax Court in response to the decision letter, how do Tax Court judges rule on the inevitable IRS motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction? Well, there is no published opinion on this issue, but there are at least three recent orders (which are, of course, non-precedential), and the Tax Court judges therein ruled have inconsistently with each other. Compare Taylor v. Commissioner, Docket No. 3043-17L (order dated Nov. 8, 2017) (holding that the Tax Court has jurisdiction) (Carluzzo, STJ); with Nunez v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2946-17L (order dated May 18, 2018) (holding that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction in a section 6672 penalty case) (Nega, J.), and Nunez v. Commissioner, Docket No. 2925-17L (order dated May 21, 2018) (holding that the Tax Court lacks jurisdiction) (Nega, J.).

A Tax Court opinion to establish binding precedent on this common fact pattern is needed. In a third recent order, Khanna v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5469-16L (order dated Feb. 13, 2018) (Gale, J.), the judge never had to rule on this issue; however, the order indicates the analysis that the T.C. opinion should use: whether the 30-day period to request a CDP hearing is not jurisdictional and is subject to equitable tolling under recent Supreme Court case law. For under equitable tolling, timely filing in the wrong forum is one of the ways to satisfy a nonjurisdictional time limit.

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This is not an original post: Samantha Galvin published posts on two of the relevant orders within the last year, here and here. Meanwhile, this post discusses the recent inconsistent orders in Nunez.

Background

Both section 6320(a)(3)(B) and (b)(2) and section 6330(a)(3)(B) and (b)(2) provide a 30-day period to request a CDP hearing after the IRS issues a notice of filing of a tax lien (NFTL) or a notice of intention to levy (NOIL). If the taxpayer timely files the request (on a Form 12153), the taxpayer receives a CDP hearing and a notice of determination (NOD) at the end thereof. If the taxpayer misses the 30-day period, he or she may receive an equivalent hearing and a decision letter at the end thereof. A NOD may be reviewed by the Tax Court if the taxpayer files a petition within a different 30-day period provided in section 6330(d)(1).

The courts have held that the section 6330(d)(1) 30-day period is jurisdictional and not subject to equitable tolling. See, e.g., Guralnik v. Commissioner, 146 T.C. 230, 235-238 (2016); Duggan v. Commissioner, 879 F.3d 1029 (9th Cir. 2018).

An equivalent hearing decision letter is not reviewable, unless the Tax Court concludes that the taxpayer had in fact timely requested a CDP hearing; in the latter case, the Tax Court treats the decision letter issued by the IRS as if it were a reviewable NOD. Craig v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 252, 259 (2002).

While the Tax Court has never called the 30-day periods to request a CDP hearing jurisdictional, and not subject to equitable tolling, it has treated compliance with the 30-day periods as mandatory to its review jurisdiction under section 6330(d)(1). See, e.g., Offiler v. Commissioner, 114 T.C. 492 (2000) (dismissing a petition for lack of jurisdiction when the IRS did not hold a CDP hearing because the taxpayer filed a late request). On the other hand, when the IRS properly held an equivalent hearing (because the request was late), but erroneously thereafter issued a CDP NOD, the Tax Court held that it had jurisdiction on account of the NOD’s issuance, but the Tax Court did not dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction, but rather granted summary judgment to the IRS (a merits ruling). Kim v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2005-96 (suggesting that compliance with the 30-day request period is not jurisdictional to the Tax Court).

Reg. §§ 301.6320-1(c)(2)(A-C6) and 301.6330-1(c)(2)(A-C6) state:

The written request for a CDP hearing must be sent, or hand delivered (if permitted), to the IRS office and address as directed on the CDP Notice. If the address of that office does not appear on the CDP Notice, the taxpayer should obtain the address of the office to which the written request should be sent or hand delivered by calling, toll-free, 1-800-829-1040 and providing the taxpayer’s identification number (e.g., SSN, ITIN or EIN).

Internal Revenue Manual § 5.19.8.4.2(8) (8-5-16) states:

If the CDP hearing request is not addressed to the correct office as indicated in the CDP notice, the date to determine timeliness is the date the request is received by the IRS office to which the request should have been sent. However, if the address does not appear on the notice, or if it is determined that the taxpayer received erroneous instructions from an IRS employee resulting in the request being sent to the wrong office, use the postmark date to that office to determine timeliness.

Note: 

A request that is hand-carried to a local Taxpayer Assistance Center will be timely if delivered within the 30-day period during which taxpayers may request a hearing. See IRM 5.19.8.4.7.1.2, CDP Hearing Requests Hand Delivered to Taxpayer Assistance Centers (TAC).

Taylor 

Judge Carluzzo’s order in Taylor is so short that I will quote it in its entirety. Essentially, he holds the request timely because the IRS wasn’t much prejudiced by timely receipt in the wrong office. He used a “substantial compliance” analysis. He wrote:

Because petitioner’s request for an administrative hearing was mailed to, and received by the Internal Revenue Service within the period contemplated in section 6320(a)(3) and (b), even though the request was not mailed to the address designated in the relevant collection notice, and because respondent has not demonstrated sufficient prejudice resulting from the manner that the request was mailed to insist upon strict compliance with the Treasury Regulations relied upon in support of his motion, we find that petitioner’s request for an administrative hearing was timely made. That being so, we further find that the decision letter attached to the petition is the equivalent of a notice of determination for purposes of sections 6320(c) and 6330(d). See Craig v. Commissioner, 119 T.C. 252 (2002). Because the petition in this case was filed within the period prescribed in section 6330(d) in response to that document, it is

ORDERED that respondent’s motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, filed March 30, 2017, is denied.

The Taylor case is set for a trial on September 10, 2018.

Nunez

Nunez involved a CDP hearing request mailed to a wrong IRS address, not simply a wrong IRS office. NOILs for section 6672 penalties and income tax deficiencies instructed the taxpayer to mail his request to Internal Revenue Service, P.O. Box 145566, Cincinnati, OH 45250-5566. Although he mailed the request to the correct address, the taxpayer accidentally wrote the city and state as Hartford, CT. It is not clear why the USPS did not follow the P.O. Box and ZIP Code information and send the request to Cincinnati anyway, but the IRS office in Kansas City first received the request on the 30th day. At least nine days later, that office forwarded the request to the Cincinnati office. Eventually, the IRS concluded that the requests were late, provided an equivalent hearing, and issued separate decision letters thereafter. Nunez then filed two separate Tax Court petitions: one for the section 6672 penalties and another for the income tax deficiencies.

In both of his orders, Judge Nega only considered whether the request might be treated as timely filed under section 7502’s timely-mailing-is-timely-filing rules. He wrote in the income tax docket order:

Unfortunately, petitioner cannot rely on the mailbox rule to treat his Form 12153, that was delivered after the 30-day period specified in section 6320 and/or 6330, as timely filed because he did not properly address the envelope. See sec. 301.7502-1(c)(1), Proced. & Admin. Regs. Therefore, the Appeals Office properly issued petitioner a decision letter for tax years 2012 and 2014, and as mentioned above, a decision letter is not a notice of determination sufficient to invoke’s (sic) this Court’s jurisdiction under section 6320 or 6330. Kennedy v. Commissioner, 116 T.C. 255, 262-263 (2001). Accordingly, we are obliged to dismiss this case for lack of jurisdiction.

The section 6672 docket order is virtually verbatim as the order in the income tax docket.

Observations

In my view, both judges failed to do the proper legal analysis with respect to the facts. That analysis, however, was stated by Judge Gale in Khanna v. Commissioner, Docket No. 5469-16L (order dated Feb. 13, 2018). In Khanna, the taxpayers not only mailed their CDP hearing request to the wrong IRS office (where it arrived two days early), but also, after the IRS sent the taxpayers a decision letter, it appeared from the date of that letter that the taxpayers filed their petition late under the 30-day period in section 6330(d)(1). The decision letter had not been mailed by certified mail, though, so the court was unwilling to assume that the date shown on the decision letter was the date of its mailing. In directing the IRS to file a supplement to its motion giving evidence of the decision letter’s mailing date, the court also wrote:

Depending upon the evidence identified concerning the decision letter’s mailing date, we may still need to decide the more difficult issue of the timeliness of petitioners’ CDP hearing request. In that event, we may further direct respondent to address three additional issues bearing upon the timeliness of petitioners’ CDP hearing request: . . . (2) the impact of recent U.S. Supreme Court and Third Circuit Court of Appeals cases concerning equitable tolling upon respondent’s position that the requirement that a CDP hearing request be filed within 30 days of the CDP notice is jurisdictional, see United States v. Kwai Fun Wong, 575 U.S. __, 135 S. Ct. 1625 (2015); Sebelius v. Auburn Reg’l Med. Ctr., 568 U.S. 145 (2013); Gonzalez v. Thaler, 565 U.S. 134, 141 (2012) (cautioning courts not to lightly attach the drastic consequences of labeling a deadline enacted by Congress as “jurisdictional” in an effort to bring some discipline to the term’s use); Kontrick v. Ryan, 540 U.S. 443 (2004); United States v. Brockamp, 519 U.S. 347 (1997); Irwin v. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 498 U.S. 89 (1990); Rubel v. Commissioner, 856 F.3d 301, 304 (3d Cir. 2017) (cautioning courts to avoid “drive-by jurisdictional rulings” due to the drastic consequences of a “jurisdictional” label) . . . .

Judge Gale will never have to decide this issue, since the parties to Khanna have reached a settlement, and the judge has indicated that he will grant a taxpayers’ motion to dismiss the case (whether or not the case had been properly filed).

In an appeal from a Tax Court innocent spouse case dismissal, the Third Circuit once stated:

There may be equitable tolling “(1) where the defendant has actively misled the plaintiff respecting the plaintiff’s cause of action; (2) where the plaintiff in some extraordinary way has been prevented from asserting his or her rights; or (3) where the plaintiff has timely asserted his or her rights mistakenly in the wrong forum.” Hedges v. United States, 404 F.3d 744, 751 (3d Cir. 2005) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted).

Mannella v. Commissioner, 631 F.3d 115, 125 (3d Cir. 2011).

It appears that, as Judge Gale must have recognized, timely filing a CDP request in the wrong IRS office might meet the third stated common ground for equitable tolling. See, e.g., Bailey v. Principi, 351 F.3d 1381, 1382 (Fed. Cir. 2003) (“We hold that the filing with the regional office of a document that expresses the veteran’s intention to appeal to the Veterans Court equitably tolls the running of the 120–day notice of appeal period, and we therefore reverse and remand.”); Santana-Venegas v. Principi, 314 F.3d 1293, 1298 (Fed. Cir. 2002) (“We hold as a matter of law that a veteran who misfiles his or her notice of appeal at the same VARO from which the claim originated within the 120–day judicial appeal period of 38 U.S.C. § 7266, thereby actively pursues his or her judicial remedies, despite the defective filing, so as to toll the statute of limitations.”); Doherty v. Teamsters Pension Trust Fund of Philadelphia & Vicinity, 16 F.3d 1386, 1393 (3d Cir. 1994) (equitable tolling could be allowed when the plaintiff mistakenly filed in federal court rather than the appropriate arbitration forum).  Note that, in Nunez, the request actually arrived in the incorrect Kansas City office on the 30th day, which made it unnecessary to determine whether section 7502 had any impact on the issue of timely filing if a person is invoking equitable tolling.

If the 30-day periods to request a CDP hearing are jurisdictional, then the IRS may not extend them by regulation or the Manual. Auburn Reg’l Med. Ctr., 568 U.S. at 154 (holding that if the filing deadline is jurisdictional, “[n]ot only could there be no equitable tolling. The Secretary’s regulation providing for a good-cause extension . . . would fall as well.”). And, if the time periods are jurisdictional, then they cannot be subject to equitable exceptions either, such as equitable tolling. Dolan v. United States, 560 U.S. 605, 610 (2010).

But, Wong teaches that “Congress must do something special, beyond setting an exception-free deadline, to tag a statute of limitations as jurisdictional and so prohibit a court from tolling it.” Wong, 135 S. Ct. at 1632.

Congress has done no such thing here. The statutory filing deadlines for requesting CDP hearings do not contain the word “jurisdiction” (unlike the section 6330(d)(1) filing deadline) or otherwise speak in jurisdictional terms, and there is no history of treating the CDP request deadlines as jurisdictional – in contrast to the Tax Court’s long-standing position that filing deadlines in the Tax Court are jurisdictional. Thus, there is no reason for the Tax Court to follow its Guralnik holding is jurisdictional when looking at the 30-day periods to request a CDP hearing.

And it would not be surprising for the Tax Court to hold that the Tax Court CDP filing deadline is not subject to equitable tolling, while the deadlines to request a CDP hearing from the IRS are subject to equitable tolling. In Hall v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 374 (2010), the Tax Court reaffirmed its holding that the since-abandoned 2-year regulatory filing deadline to request innocent spouse relief under section 6015(f) was invalid. Judge Wells, in a concurrence joined by five other Tax Court judges, stated that, even if the regulation had been valid, the 2-year period should be subject to equitable tolling, unlike the 90-day deadline in section 6015(e)(1)(A) to petition the Tax Court for a determination of entitlement to section 6015 relief, which the Tax Court in Pollock v. Commissioner, 132 T.C. 21 (2009), held was jurisdictional. Hall, 135 T.C. at 387 n.5 (Wells, J., concurring).

Finally, it appears that the IRS, in the Manual, essentially treats the CDP request filing deadlines as nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling.

First, as noted above, the Manual provides that if a CDP request arrives timely at the wrong IRS office, if taxpayer received erroneous instructions from an IRS employee, the filing is treated as timely. That is the first ground in Mannella listed for equitable tolling in which the defendant had actively misled the plaintiff with respect to the plaintiff’s cause of action.

Second, there are provisions in the regulations (Reg. §§ 301.6320-1(c)(2)(A-C7) and 301.6330-1(c)(2)(A-C7) ) and Manual (§ 5.19.8.4.2.2 (8-27-10)) for giving the taxpayers up to an additional 15 days to perfect a timely CDP request that arrived in an unprocessable form. Paragraph (2) of that Manual provision states:

If a request for a CDP hearing is filed timely, but is not processable, contact the taxpayer and allow up to 15 calendar days for the taxpayer to perfect the request so that it is processable. If the taxpayer meets this requirement, the request is timely filed.

Note: 

If the taxpayer demonstrates that the late response was due to extenuating circumstances, such as being in the hospital or out of the country during that period, then treat the request as timely.

Such extenuating circumstances mentioned in the Manual are basically the same as the second ground listed in Mannella for equitable tolling, in which the plaintiff has been prevented from asserting his or her rights in some extraordinary way. Not that the IRS’ interpretation of the CDP request filing deadlines should control the courts, but it was my intention to illustrate that it would not be shocking to the IRS if the filing deadlines were treated as nonjurisdictional and subject to equitable tolling.

If he chooses to do so, Mr. Nunez’s cases are appealable to the Ninth Circuit. We will watch closely.

 

What Makes a Whistleblower Notice of Determination?

Carlton Smith brings us a thought-provoking discussion of the Myers whistleblower case which raises important issues of Tax Court jurisdiction and tax exceptionalism. Christine

There is a case pending in the D.C. Circuit that may upend several Tax Court precedents concerning what constitutes a valid notice of determination concerning a whistleblower award.  Such notices give the Tax Court review jurisdiction under section 7623(b)(4).  In Myers v. Commissioner, 148 T.C. No. 20 (June 5, 2017), the Tax Court followed its prior precedent of Cooper v. Commissioner, 135 T.C. 70, 75-76 (2010), which held that there is no particular form for a whistleblower award notice of determination, and that multiple letters from the Whistleblower Office indicating that an award was not being granted each constituted tickets to the Tax Court.  In an appeal of Myers, the whistleblower is challenging those holdings, which have never been reviewed by an appellate court.  Under section 7482(b)(1)’s flush language, all appeals from Tax Court whistleblower award cases go to the D.C. Circuit – not the Circuit of residence.  So, under Golsen, the Tax Court will have to accept anything the D.C. Circuit rules in the appeal of Myers.

read more...

Facts

Myers sought an award with respect to a former employer of his.  He told the IRS that the employer had misclassified him and many of his co-workers as independent contractors.  It is unclear whether the IRS ever used this information to conduct an administrative proceeding.  In one letter to Myers, the IRS alleged that it did not collect $2 million – the threshold for awards under section 7623(b)(5) – which may imply it did audit the employer and collect some money.  Starting in 2009 and going through 2014, Myers exchanged correspondence with the Whistleblower’s Office.  In a series of four letters written to him in 2013 and 2014, the Office made clear that it was not giving him an award.  But, despite the Manual’s then requirement (since repealed) that any whistleblower award notice of determination be sent certified mail, each of these letters was sent to Myers by regular mail.  Further, none of the letters stated therein that this was a notice of determination, that review was available in the Tax Court, or that he had 30 days to file a Tax Court petition.

Myers was representing himself, and he was frustrated and did not know what to do to pursue his claim.  Eventually, in 2015, Myers filed a Tax Court petition, and the IRS moved to dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction as untimely.

Tax Court Proceedings

In the Tax Court, Myers resisted the IRS motion, arguing that the letters were not valid notices of determination, particularly since they were not sent certified mail, but also because they did not alert him to the possibility of filing in the Tax Court.  Of course, if he were right on this, then perhaps the correct ruling would be for the court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction for lack of a ticket to the Tax Court, rather than for untimely filing.

But, Myers also argued that, if the letters constituted valid notices of determination, then the Tax Court had jurisdiction because either equitable tolling or estoppel should prevent the IRS from arguing that he filed too late.

The case was first discussed in a phone call with Special Trial Judge Guy, and then a hearing on the motion was held before Judge Ashford.  The transcript of the hearing is here.  At the hearing, Judge Ashford’s concern was how the IRS could prove the date of mailing of the letters, when they were not sent certified mail.  But, the judge also wondered why the IRS couldn’t just fix the problem by now sending a notice of determination by certified mail.  Here’s the judge speaking at pp. 47-48 of the transcript:

I’m going to take this matter under advisement. I am still — I mean, based on the testimony, you know, of both Ms. Carr and Mr. Myers, you know, Mr. Arthur and Mr. Barnes, I am still troubled, to be frank with you, by the fact that all of these letters or determinations, you know, they’re ambiguous. They give no clue as to — first, you know, like I said, at the outset starting the 30 days — starting the 30-day clock, so to speak.

And it just seems like, you know, the Internal Revenue Service issuing these letters, they can easily frustrate judicial review, you know, by issuing ambiguous denials.

You know, I don’t know whether, you know, it’s a matter of — and I think Judge Guy may have alluded to this when you all had a telephone conference. You know, the IRS whistleblower office, you know, issuing, you know, another, you know, denial letter certified mail, you know, so that — so that The Court, you know, can proceed, I guess.

When she wrote her opinion in Myers, though, Judge Ashford followed Cooper and held that each of these letters constituted notices of determination, and she got around the issue of the date the IRS sent the letters by holding that Mr. Myers’s actions in responding to them shows that he received the letters in sufficient time to petition the Tax Court within 30 days after the date of the letters, so his later Tax Court filing was untimely.  She imported into the whistleblower award jurisdiction the similar case law from deficiency jurisdiction holding that if one actually received a notice of deficiency – one that was either not sent certified mail or not properly addressed – with enough time left on the 90-day period to file a petition, then the notice of deficiency was valid.  She also observed that the Tax Court could not equitably toll the whistleblower award filing period, citing Friedland v. Commissioner, T.C. Memo. 2011-90, since the filing period is jurisdictional.  As a side note, when Friedland came out, I questioned whether it was correct in light of recent Supreme Court case law that now only rarely makes filing deadlines jurisdictional and the existing presumption in favor of finding that statutes of limitations running against the government are subject to equitable tolling.  See my “Friedland:  Did the Tax Court Blow its Whistleblower Jurisdiction?”, Tax Notes Today, 2011 TNT 100-10 (May 24, 2011).

Myers moved to reconsider the opinion, in part because both Judges Guy and Ashford had considered asking the IRS to just issue a proper notice of determination by certified mail.  In an order, Judge Ashford denied the motion, writing in part:

[P]etitioner places undue import on what transpired during a telephone conference the Court held with the parties before the hearing on respondent’s motion to dismiss and at the hearing. What the Court suggested to respondent was just that — a suggestion (to potentially resolve a previously unaddressed legal question).  Indeed, as a court of limited jurisdiction, sec. 7442, we lack the authority to order respondent to take such a specific action as reissuing a determination letter. Cf. Cooper v. Commissioner, 136 T.C. 597, 600 (2011) (no authority under sec. 7623 to order Commissioner to initiate examination on basis of whistleblower information). The suggestion in any event (and respondent’s apparent disinclination to take up the Court’s suggestion) does not cause us to question the direct evidence that petitioner received actual notice of the Whistleblower Office’s determination letters significantly more than 30 days before he filed his petition with the Court.

If Judge Gustafson is reading this post, his ears must have just pricked up, since he had a much ballyhooed whistleblower case a while ago in which he indicated that he was not so sure that the Tax Court did not have the power to order the IRS to issue a whistleblower award notice of determination where the IRS had unreasonably delayed in sending such a notice.  Indeed, an amicus brief was submitted to him in that case, Insinga v. Commissioner, T.C. Docket No. 4609-12W.  Here’s what he wrote in a 2013 order in Insinga:

The amicus curiae (National Whistleblower Center) argues in the alternative that where an award determination has been unreasonably delayed, the Tax Court has jurisdiction–in light of § 7623(b)(4) and under § 706(1) of the Administrative Procedures Act (“APA”), 5 U.S.C. § 551 et seq.–to “compel agency action unlawfully withheld or unreasonably delayed”. Respondent counters that the APA itself confers no jurisdiction and that the mandamus statute (28 U.S.C. § 1361) by its terms gives jurisdiction only to “[t]he district courts”. Respondent is correct; but the “All Writs Act” (28 U.S.C. § 1651) applies to “all courts established by Act of Congress” (cf 26 U.S.C. § 7441, establishing the U.S. Tax Court); and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has held in Telecommunications Research and Action Center v. FCC, 750 F.2d 70, 75 (D.C. Cir. 1984) (“TRAC“), that, in view of the APA and the All Writs Act, “it is clear–and no party disputes this point–that” if a statute (there, 28 U.S.C. § 23421(1)) confers on a court exclusive jurisdiction to review a final agency order, then even before the final order has been issued, the court has “jurisdiction over claims of unreasonable [agency] delay”. (The D.C. Circuit would appear to be the default venue for any appeal in this case; see 26 U.S.C. § 7482(b)(1).)

We have not decided whether the reasoning in TRAC applies to the Tax Court and its jurisdiction under § 7623(b)(4). Nor have we decided whether, if the APA does not directly apply, this case nonetheless presents one of those instances in which the Tax Court, “in appropriate circumstances, borrow[s] principles of judicial review embodied in the APA.” Ewing v. Commissioner, 122 T.C. 32, 54 (2004) (Thornton, J., concurring).

We believe we ought not to reach those questions if we do not need to do so.

Before Judge Gustafson had to rule on this issue, the Insinga mater became moot when the IRS issued a notice of determination and the parties settled the Insinga case.

Appellate Proceedings

Still acting pro se, Myers appealed the Tax Court’s dismissal of his case to the Tenth Circuit.  At the urging of the DOJ, though, the Tenth Circuit transferred the appeal to the Circuit with correct venue, the D.C. Circuit, per the following order.

At this point, Joe DiRuzzo and Alex Golubitsky tendered their legal services pro bono to Mr. Myers and filed an opening brief in his case in the D.C. Circuit.  In that brief, they did not contest whether Mr. Myers received the letters in time to file a Tax Court petition, but rather argued, first, that the letters did not constitute notices of determination.  Rather than immediately asking the Tax Court to dismiss the case for lack of jurisdiction for lack of the predicate notice of determination, they argued that, under the TRAC opinion cited by Judge Gustafson in his Insinga order, the Tax Court had the power under the All Writs Act to order the IRS to issue a notice of determination to Myers and that the Tax Court should exercise that power.  They also noted that the Federal Circuit last year held that the Article I Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims (the “Veterans Court”), under the All Writs Act, had the power to order the VA to issue the predicate tickets to the Veterans Court if they had been unreasonably delayed.  Monk v. Shulkin, 855 F.3d 1312 (Fed. Cir. 2017).  (As an aside, the Monk case is one Tax Court judges should read and ponder, since the Federal Circuit also held in that case that, despite the lack of Veterans Court rules authorizing class actions, the Veterans Court also had the power to hear class actions.  Might the Tax Court also have class action powers, despite no current class action rules?  Monk may be the subject of another post, but I just flag the opinion here as worth reading by all tax procedure buffs for several reasons.)

In the alternative, if the letters were valid notices, Messrs. DiRuzzo and Golubitsky argued that the 30-day filing deadline in section 7623(b)(4) was not jurisdictional under current Supreme Court case law that now rarely makes filing deadlines jurisdictional, and the petition should be held timely under the doctrine of equitable tolling because of the misleading behavior of the IRS in this case.  The Harvard Federal Tax Clinic filed an amicus brief in Myers (written by Keith and me) limited to the argument that the filing deadline is not jurisdictional.  This is just another case in our campaign against judicial tax filing deadlines still being considered jurisdictional.

The DOJ has not yet filed its answering brief in Myers, so the government position on many of these issues is not yet known.  This should be an interesting case to follow for many reasons.  PT will keep you posted on further interesting developments therein.